This is not what democracy looks like

Turkmenistan will hold presidential elections on March 12, 2022. This was announced on February 11, 2022 during the meeting of the upper house of parliament. After 15 years in power President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called for snap elections and announced his intention to stay as the chairman of the upper house of parliament, even though this is not allowed by the Constitution of Turkmenistan.

The election result looks like a foregone conclusion, and does little to build relations with the public and international community. But elections are a useful tool for the Turkmen authorities to project legitimacy. On February 15, president’s son Serdar Berdimuhamedov was the first candidate nominated by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. In March, it is all but guaranteed that Turkmenistan will have Serdar Berdimuhamedov as its new President.

We think there are many reasons for why basic democratic principles will not be upheld in the upcoming presidential elections in Turkmenistan. The following six factors make meaningful public participation impossible:

  1. Lack of a transparent, inclusive, and accountable election process: Turkmenistan has never had free and competitive elections in its history. This upcoming election campaign and administration is limited to one month. There is no mechanism or time to propose, nominate, or properly vet candidates. Disrespect of due process, along with opaque procedures, characterize the state administration. In many ways, the government has continued with Soviet ways of thinking, administering, and reaching results while never respecting, let alone creating, genuine electoral and administrative processes.
    Presidential candidates have neither policies nor campaign platforms. The state media only reports candidates’ biographical information (job, region) and does not provide any information about their specific policy proposals on how to start addressing urgent societal issues. While there are three political parties in Turkmenistan, they do not represent alternative viewpoints. Instead, all political parties support the ruling government and promise to continue their legacy and policies.
  2. Absence of checks and balances: OSCE/ODIHR’s report on the last presidential elections in 2017 highlights that “the constitutionally enshrined principle of separation of power between the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government are not enforced. Checks and balances are largely inoperative”. The election report states that “the presidential election took place in a strictly controlled political environment. The predominant position of the incumbent and the lack of genuine opposition and meaningful pluralism limited voters’ choice. Besides the events organized by Central Election Commission for Election and Referenda (CEC), the campaign was absent and the rigidly restrained media gave the incumbent a clear advantage”.
    The report further notes that “all 15 CEC members are appointed by the president, which compromises the independence of the commission. Further, the administration of the election generally lacked transparency”.
  3. Censorship: All media is state-controlled in Turkmenistan. There is no uncensored content to expect there. Meanwhile, the international media focuses on clickbait geopolitics and entertaining topics of dynasties, gas sales, and the ongoing saga with the Gates of Hell. It is very hard for Turkmen groups or authors to be heard on problems that matter to an average person. As a result, the public has no source of reliable and factual information to have informed discussion and opinion. The lack of media freedom, plurality, solution-based reporting inhibits voter education and civic engagement.
  4. Civic culture of paralyzing fear and learned helplessness: The government policies turned Turkmenistan into a society that is built on despair and fear. Turkmens have never voted in free, fair, and competitive elections and have little or no understanding of the value of democratic processes. They have been struggling with learned helplessness and apathy. Turkmens have not been studied for 30 years in a sociological sense. One thing many would agree with is that levels of trust among people and trust of state institutions in society are at their lowest. The public is emotionally and psychologically exhausted and has little interest in participating in political life. People are more concerned about surviving current socio-economic hardships than engaging in political discourse. Political life is non-existent in Turkmenistan where there are no independent civic associations or citizen groups. All these complex psychological factors contributed to a citizen to develop overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and loss of control over her or his present and future.
  5. Disengaged and complicit international community: The international community acts in the absence of coherent policies towards the Turkmen authorities and Turkmenistan. The response or rather lack of response by WHO and the UN to COVID-19 mismanagement by the government in Turkmenistan can be treated as a sign and measure of how much the international community wants to hear the public’s concerns. Both organizations have a presence in the country and they decided to go along with the narrative of no COVID-19 deaths and infections in the country. Mostly, international stakeholders including the US and the EU go along with the government’s narrative and do not support genuine civil society initiatives. Thirty years of this mode of operation, along with repressive government rules around nongovernmental organization formation, has left the country with no credible and professional civil society groups within the country. The average Turkmen views the operations of international institutions with suspicion and a high dose of skepticism in Turkmenistan. This undermines any chance for democratic culture to emerge.
  6. Weak, low-capacity citizen groups: Most of the scattered opposition citizen groups operate outside of the country. They have no campaign platforms or policies and mainly focus on criticism of the current regime and each other. Building coalitions and communicating the values they stand for to the public is not happening at this point. Neither is a nuanced discussion of the daily struggles and problems of the people in Turkmenistan, such as inflation, unemployment, basic Internet access, healthcare, or the lack of the ability to freely travel – both within and outside of the country. This alienates the public and further entrenches the culture of hopelessness.

Dear reader, would you agree with this analysis? What do you think? What are the other factors? is an online analytical journal that promotes better, nuanced understanding of the societal trends in Turkmenistan by providing quality research and policy analysis.

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